Finally, it has come to this. Those pesky Bulls had to crash the party, had to make this series take place one round early, but never mind them. While Chicago sweeps the Hawks, all eyes will be on this.
Heat vs. Celtics, Evil vs.Good, free agency vs. the trading market, tampering vs. a little help from your friends, individual Rucker Park basketball vs. championship-level synergy.
Sunday afternoon, it begins — and all we have to do is sit back and watch, pens drawn, narratives abound.
That said, those of us who want to watch a basketball series and not the ultimate battle of clashing basketball philosophies that don’t clash at all are in for a treat as well. Seven All-Stars will take the court Sunday for the start of a four-to-seven-game series. At least 6 future Hall of Famers will play. And if we’re lucky, Hubie Brown will be in the announcing booth, pointing out every important thing we’re watching.
But what exactly do we need to be watching when they tip-off?
I’m glad you asked.
Who’s Guarding Lebron James?
I’ll let Tom Haberstroh take this one, because he’s much smarter than you, me, and everybody.
According to Newmann and Oliver, Pierce checked LeBron 69 percent of the time, with Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green and Marquis Daniels (no longer with the team) filling in the rest. But against Pierce, LeBron shot just 43 percent from the field and his efficiency plummeted to depths rarely seen from him. In fact, LeBron scored 75 points per 100 possessions with Pierce covering him, down from his 93 points per 100 possessions when guarded by all other Celtics defenders.
We’ve seen this going on in previous Lebron vs. Boston series. Though Boston guards Lebron in a team-wide manner, having Pierce spearhead the defensive effort is key – more than ever when the defensive monstrosity that is Jeff Green is the primary second option. Boston needs Pierce in prime shape, hoping that working on Lebron won’t take the same toll it has taken on his offensive game in the past.
Where’s Dwyane Wade?
In four games against Boston this year, Dwyane Wade is shooting 28% from the field. His true shooting percentage isn’t much better, at a disturbingly low 38%. He registered 21 turnovers to 21 assists, and got to the line only 5.8 times a game (after averaging 8.6 for the year). The narrative dictates that Wade is clutch and Lebron is not, that Wade shows up for the playoffs and that Lebron does not, and that Wade is a good person and Lebron is not, but with Lebron’s averages against Boston on par with his season numbers (29, 6.5, 6.5 on 56.2 TS%, albeit 5 turnovers), the onus to show up will be on the former Finals MVP.
Will Rajon Be Rajon?
In three wins against the Heat, Rajon Rondo had 43 assists. In one loss, he had 5. This is obviously a very cut-and-dry way to look at things, with millions of other factors going in to every one of those 4 regular season games, but the difference is simultaneously astonishing and extremely logical. When Rondo is at the top of his game, penetrating at will and finding his teammates, this Boston offense is a completely different beast. When Rondo is not well, the offense boggles down to a 9-7 March or a 4-4 April.
Who Plays Center?
Joel Anthony has risen from national punchline to cult hero, and with good reason. The handless +/- monster has had a strong effect during the regular season series between these two teams, playing fantastic defense on Kevin Garnett in Miami’s blowout April win. In fact, the Celtics have only scored 89.7 points per 100 possessions with Joel on the court, compared to 99.6 when Zydrunas Ilguaskas is out there.
The picture flips on offense. By replacing Joel’s dunk air-balling goodness with Z’s pick-and-pop acumen, the Heat’s offense vs. Boston jumps a staggering 14 points per 100 possessions. Balancing the two centers (perhaps occasionally playing centerless when Boston trots Garnett out to the pivot) will be key for the Heat.
(Just for kicks, in case one of you still thinks Erick Dampier is a valid NBA center: Miami has scored 54.4 points per 100 possessions against Boston with Damp on the floor. It should be noted that this took place for only 6 minutes all season, but hey, why take notice of sample sizes when making fun of Erick Dampier?)
The center position is just as important from Boston’s side as well, if only because of the increasingly unlikely scenario that Shaquille O’neal ever takes the court again. Shaq was a key part of Boston’s torrid start to the season, which included two closer-than-the-score-indicates wins over these same Heat. Miami has no one on it’s roster who can handle Shaq.
Sadly, it seems as if 39 years of humongousness have finally done the Diesel in.
The Supporting Casts
Miami is the big 3 and nobody else, while Boston is a TEAM. Right? Anybody?
This line of thinking should probably go down the drain at this point. Beyond Boston’s 4 all stars, the team has been absolutely atrocious. Adding on to the Jeff Green outlash is just plain cruel at this point, but Glen Davis hasn’t looked much better, and Jermaine O’neal looks about as creaky as the frequent and generic punchlines make him out to be. Delonte West is shooting 27% in these playoffs so far, and while this probably improves considerably, he’s hardly been the model of consistency these past few years. Boston’s fifth best player might be Nenad Krstic at this point, which says a lot.
Meanwhile, Joel Anthony has been fantastic defensively, and the James Jones/Mario Chalmers combo are shooting a combined 39% from three. Hardly spectacular, but with rest between games and enabling Lebron, Wade and Bosh to play upwards of 40 minutes a game, the Heat don’t really need spectacular. All they need is to drag Boston’s supporting cast down with their’s, which at the moment, seems very plausible.
Who Shows Up?
A simplistic question, without much analytical standing.
Yet, this will decide the series.
Miami has shown a disturbing lack of urgency throughout this season. The reasons as to why now become completely irrelevant – from here on out, Miami runs the risk of it’s season ending. The urgency should accompany that prospect.
Similarly, we have no idea which Boston arrives. The Celtics aren’t as bad as their post all-star play indicates, but expecting them to flip the switch all the way back up, even if they did it last year, is an extreme leap of faith. And as impressive as they looked in the final 2 games against the Knicks, they were also very close to losing twice on their home floor, to the Knicks.
Prediction, Just Because It Has To Be Done
The Heat are not going to blow the Celtics out. Boston is too proud, the defense is too good, and Miami still lacks the cohesion to pull it off. And Boston is not going to blow Miami out, because Miami has the two best players in the series, in a sport where this sort of thing matters. (Don’t give me the “New York had the two best players in the series too!” bit, because we know better.) It will be a close series, with low scoring and high drama. But this Boston team needs too many things to go just right, and unlike last season, when everything did go just right, I don’t think Lebron skips Game 5.
Heat in 7.